Sara Rakita

Rwanda's children have seen the worst of humanity. Ten years after a group
of politicians set in motion a genocide in an attempt to retain power, the
devastating consequences for those who were left behind are unmistakable.

Traditional protective structures for children including family networks,
the judicial system, and the education system were decimated. As a result,
children - many of whom survived unspeakable atrocities - are still the
victims of systematic human rights violations day in and day out.

Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and denied prompt access to
justice. Hundreds of thousands more living around the country have been
abused, exploited for their labour, exploited for their property, or denied
the right to education. Thousands have migrated to city streets in an effort
to escape these abuses only to find themselves in even more precarious
conditions. In the face of the daunting challenge of rebuilding a society
devastated by war, poverty, and AIDS, protecting their rights has been
sidelined. But this does not do Rwanda's children justice.

Those who planned and executed the genocide of 1994 violated children's
rights on an unprecedented scale. Children were raped, tortured, and
slaughtered along with adults in massacre after massacre around the country.
Carrying their genocidal logic to its absurd conclusion, they even targeted
children for killing - to exterminate the "big rats," they said, one must
also kill the "little rats."

Countless thousands of children were murdered in the genocide and war. Many
of those who managed to escape death had feared for their own lives,
surviving rape or torture, witnessing the killing of family members, hiding
under corpses, or seeing children killing other children. Some of these
children - now adolescents - say they do not care whether they live or die.

Perhaps the most devastating legacy of the genocide and war is the sheer
number of children left on their own, who live in precarious conditions and
are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. On Rwanda's green hills,
up to 400,000 children - 10 percent of Rwandan children - struggle to
survive without one or both parents.

Children who were orphaned in the genocide or in war, children orphaned by
AIDS, and children whose parents are in prison on charges of genocide,
alike, are in desperate need of protection. Many Rwandans have exhibited
enormous generosity in caring for orphans or other needy children.

Yet, because so many Rwandans are living in extreme poverty themselves, to
some, vulnerable children are worth only their labour and their property.
Foster families have taken needy children in, but some have also exploited
them as domestic servants, denied them education, and unscrupulously taken
over their family's land.

These children, often suffering the effects of trauma, have nowhere to turn
and they know no other fate. Traditional societal networks - severely eroded
by poverty, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and, not least, the consequences of the
genocide and war - have failed them.

Thousands of children - many of whom had been exploited for their labour or
their property and denied the right to education at home - have migrated to
city streets to fend for themselves. There, they live in abysmal conditions,
suffer poor health and hygiene, and face a near constant risk of harassment
by law enforcement officials and arbitrary arrest.

As recently as February 2004, municipal authorities continued to brutally
round children up by force in an effort to "clean the streets" before heads
of state came to attend the historic New Partnership for Africa's
Development (NEPAD) summit. It seems the presence of unkempt street children
is inconsistent with the image of the city with the newest Intercontinental
hotel. Girls living on the streets are frequently raped, sometimes even by
law enforcement officials, yet few of those responsible have been

Although they garner less sympathy, children who took part in the genocide
are also victims. Some five thousand people were arrested on charges they
committed crimes of genocide before they reached the age of eighteen. Their
rights were first violated when adults recruited, manipulated, or incited
them to participate in atrocities, and have been violated again by the
Rwandan justice system.

One boy who confessed and was convicted of genocide said he had been given a
choice of killing his sister's children or being killed himself. He was
sixteen years old at the time. Large numbers of these children were in fact
arrested unjustly.

Another boy, arrested at age thirteen after the genocide, confessed to
having killed in order to escape torture, although he now maintains that his
confession was false. He had just witnessed other detainees being tortured
at the hands of Rwandan government soldiers. His father, among others, had
died as a result of torture the night before. He and a thousand others who
were younger than fourteen in 1994, and thus too young to be held criminally
responsible under Rwandan law, were freed after being transferred from
detention facilities to reeducation camps in 2000 and 2001. The government
had been promising to release them since 1995.

As many as four thousand children who were between fourteen and eighteen
years old during the genocide continued to languish in overcrowded prisons
until last year, and some may still be detained. Their adolescence is gone.
Despite repeated, hollow promises to give their cases priority within the
over-burdened justice system, they have been subjected to the worst of a bad

Juvenile defendants have been tried at an even slower rate than adults. Few
have enjoyed the right to adequate legal counsel and other due process
protections guaranteed under Rwandan and international law. A few hundred,
for whom prosecutors had not conducted investigations or made case files
during their years of imprisonment, were provisionally released in 2001
after their neighbours cleared them of wrongdoing in public meetings.

Ironically, now that the government has finally made some progress in
dealing with the massive failures of the justice system - including
organizing gacaca courts to deal with the bulk of genocide cases and
releasing most of those who had been below the age of criminal
responsibility and those who confessed - it has become even harder to draw
attention to the plight of young adults who remain in detention for crimes
they allegedly committed as children, especially those who proclaim their
innocence. "We feel that justice has left us," one of them said.

The international community has provided billions of dollars to assist in
the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Rwanda and continues to donate tens
of millions of dollars each year. Yet inadequate resources have been devoted
to address the desperate needs of child protection. And there have been
insufficient efforts to ensure that money earmarked for the protection of
children is actually used for that purpose.

The majority of Rwandan children have been victims of armed conflict.
Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and denied prompt access to
justice. Hundreds of thousands more living around the country have been
abused, exploited for their labour, exploited for their property, or denied
the right to education. Thousands have migrated to city streets in an effort
to escape these abuses only to find themselves even worse off.

Rwanda can and must do more to protect their rights. The government has
embraced international standards on children's rights and has passed a
strong law on child protection. But words are not enough. Ten years of
promises to protect their rights has meant little for vulnerable children in
practice. We must not remain complacent while so many children continue to
suffer. The future of Rwanda depends on it.

* This article is based on "Lasting Wounds: Consequences of Genocide and War
for Rwanda's Children," written by Sara Rakita and published by Human Rights
Watch in 2003.
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